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Meaning and Communication in Yoruba Music

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MEANI NG AND COMMUNI CATI ON I N YORUBA MUSI C By Dr. Olabode Omojola ABSTRACT The principal objective of any musical performance is to communicate. Just how does a musical work communicate has however been a somehow controversial issue in music scholarship with opinions ranging within such schools of thought as represented by the structuralists, Expressionists and Referentialists. Against the background of such disparate view, this paper examines the issue
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  MEANING AND COMMUNICATION IN YORUBA MUSIC By Dr. Olabode Omojola  ABSTRACT The principal objective of any musical performance is to communicate. Just how does a musical work communicate has however been a somehow controversial issue in music scholarship with opinions ranging within such schools of thought as represented by the structuralists, Expressionists and Referentialists. Against the background of such disparate view, this paper examines the issue of meaning and communication in traditional Yoruba music using selected musical examples from the tradition. The paper concludes by advocating for an eclectic method in approaching the concept of meaning in Yoruba music. Such an approach is seen to be more relevant considering the artistic and ethno-artistic dimensions of musical performance in Nigeria. INTRODUCTION Music as part of a multi-media experience is fundamental to the Nigerian culture. The association of music with language (words), dance, religions, social and other extra-musical ideas and activities is a common feature of musical performances in Nigeria. A corollary to this principle is seen in the manner in which music is conceptualized, for example, among the Igbos and the Yorubas. In Igbo culture, music is not defined in absolute terms. Indeed, the Igbos have no word for music as it is understood in Europe. Thus, the word Egwu (or Nkwa or Uri) refers not only to the phenomenon of sound but also to features such as drama, poetry and dance. A musical performance is therefore a multi-dimensional activity which involves not only singing or instrumental playing but also features dance, drama and poetry. Thus, among the Igbo, The musician is not just the srcinator of the harmonious sounds or the vocalist that sings the piece. No, the musician is .not even the dancer who lends dramatic vigour to the whole art nor the contingent of artists whose instruments are the sine qua non of music. To us all these are (the) musicians; for the word music means Egwu, and the goodness who orders harmony, rhythm, sounds movements into a hair-raising unity. It is that unity that we call Egwu or music. (IFIONU, 1979.. 207)  A similar principle exists among the Yorubas. Although music is often verbalised as song-singing (orin kiko) or drum-playing (ilu-lilu), the all-embracing phrase for a musical performance is (Ere sise) entertaining, a generic term which encompasses singing, instrumental playing, dancing, poetry and so on. One of the most important symbols of the association of music with non-musical elements is the musico-dramatic genre of West African story-telling - the Alo (Yoruba) and the ofo (Igbo). The Alo which alternates song and speech is often set in a mythical time which has existence only in man's imagination exploring fanciful and poetic protagonists whose activities involve what may be imaginatively improbable in human experience . (Kubik, 1968:11). As an educative medium, Alo, by means of symbols... (often) shows how one can cope with the powers of one's own soul (kubik, Ibid: 11). These powers are personified in the stories whose moral lesson often establishes what is and what is not acceptable in yoruba society.   The Ala idiom exemplifies the educational significance of musical performances in Yorubaland. As we have stated elsewhere (omojola, 1992: 43), music in traditional Nigerian societies provides an efficient means through which community-shared values and skills are transmitted from one generation to another. As an educational forum, the idiom of music presents its own unique communicational procedures. The aim of this paper is to examine and articulate the various ways through which musical communication takes place in Yorubaland, focusing on both vocal and instrumental music. As a prelude to this, we shall briefly examine relevant theoretical issues. The Nature of meaning in music In addition to its aesthetic qualities, musical performance can transmit extra-musical messages. This belief is based on the position that the factors which govern the selection and the ordering of structural elements (melody, rhythm) of a piece may be related to cultural values which often transcend musical considerations. Thus as a means of communication, the meaning which resides in it may operate beyond the purely structural. As Blacking (1969:33) has stated, music being an outward sign of human communication - (its main function) is to enhance in some way the quality of individual experience and human relationships. Its structures are reflections of patterns of human relations and the value of a piece of music as music is inseparable from its value as an expression of human experience. The above position stresses the extra-musical dimension of musical communication thereby disagreeing with the position of structuralists even as wide apart as anslick and Stravinsky who hold the view that true meaning can only be congeneric - an absolutist view - that meaning exists mainly within a work, in the perception of the relationships set forth within it. While it is true that one level of meaning in a musical work can be perceived in the relationship between purely structural features (a perception which takes into consideration such elements as variety, coherence and unity), another important level of meaning exists in perceiving how those structural features reflect social values. Two scholars who have tried to show how music refers to extra-musical elements are Cooke and Meyer. Cooke (1959:272), through analyses of works by European composers who retain tonality in their compositions, states that the mysterious art known as music... is primarily and basically a language of the emotions through which we directly experience the fundamental urges that move mankind without the need of falsifying ideas and images - words or pictures. Like Cooke, Meyer's view is characterised by a structuralist-expressionist principle. He states that while one level of meaning can exist in the perception of structural relationship, music can also arouse connotative responses in the listener. Thus Unlike literature or the plastic arts which generally cannot be understood apart from the designative symbols they employ, most musical experience is meaningful without any experience to the extra-musical world. Whether a piece of music arouses connotations depends to a great extent upon the disposition and training of the individual listener and upon the presence of cues, either musical or extra-musical, which tend to activate connotative responses (Meyer, 1956: 264) Referential Communication in Yoruba music  Although the basic elements of the arguments of Cooke and Meyer are applicable to  examples of Yoruba music, the main cultural premise for their ideas is European. In traditional Yoruba music, social meaning is communicated when structural elements are interpreted withing social situations in which they are performed. Even when they are not performed within specific social situations, musical performances in Yorubaland still arouse specific feelings and reinforce social values usually associated with their traditional contexts of performance. The yoruba Bata music provides a typical example of the nature of musical communication in yoruba land, Bata music is rituo-context derived. It is a performance which is strongly tied to the worship of Sango, the yoruba god of thunder, and what Bata drummers play usually constitutes instrumental abstractions of certain underlying texts. In other words, Bata drummers also talk with their instruments and members of the audience who are familiar with the textual and vocal basis of Bata music automatically decode messages which operate beyond the musical. This is because the language texts which the drummers imitate on their drums have extra-musical, religious and social significances. In addition, Bata music like many Yoruba instrumental ensembles, communicates extensively through dance. Thus, Bata dancers compliment the communicative force of the music by transposing its message into culturally decodable body gestures. Even in a de-contextualiaed performance (such as we have when Bata musicians are made to perform in a modern stage of a modern concert hall to a listening rather than a participating audience) the complementary role of the dancers often serves to underline the extra-musical messages of the performance as well as reinforce the ethno-aesthetic dimension of Bata through evocative references to the ritual srcin of the music. In such cases musical communication is referential as patterns, of sound textures are interpreted and appreciated in conjunction with relevant social or religious contexts, values and beliefs. In such situations, the extra-musical social meaning is conveyed (not only) by the music itself (but also) by the direct association of sound patterns with specific social contexts (Blacking op, cit: 46). Yoruba Musical Instruments as Symbols Musical instruments in Yoruba traditional societies also perform extra-musical functions. In very many cases, they are conceived of as objects of religious significance or symbols of royal and political power. As Akpabot (1986:98) has observed:  An African musical instrument probably presents the most diversified source of information on the artistic values, religious beliefs; family life and the general social structure of a society: for every standardized procedure in an ethnic group is an element of its culture. The numerous Yoruba traditional ensembles demonstrate, in various ways, how musical instruments symbolise and communicate different socio-cultural value and beliefs of extra-musical significances. The Igbin drums are typical of the ritual-symbolic nature of many Yoruba drums. The Igbin drums, which are single-headed, cylindrical drums are ritually exclusive to the worship of Obatala the Yoruba god of fertility. In view of this, Igbin drums are usually housed within the shrine of Obatala where they are played regularly by devotees. As a result of the strong association between yoruba instrumental ensembles and yoruba divinities, many yoruba drummers are devotees of the gods to which their drums are associated. For example, many players of Bata drums are also devotees of Sango, the god of thunder, to which the drums are associated. Yoruba ensembles which are strongly associated with royalty include the Gbedu ensembles and the Kakaki both of which are widely used. The gbedu which is also a one-sided cylindrical drum is often performed as an exclusively royal music in such different yoruba regions as Oyo, Ekiti, Owo, and Ijebu. The Kakaki is often used to announce the arrival of Yoruba kings at  important occasions as well as to welcome visitors to the palace. These are only few examples of the use of musical instruments to communicate extra-musical ideas, a practice which is common all over Nigeria. The performance of such functions in addition to musical roles by instruments once again underlines the yoruba conception of music from both the artistic and utilitarian perspectives. Song Texts as Culture indicators Most Yoruba musical performances are word oriented. In other words, apart from musico-aesthetic communication, musical performances generally tend to emphasise the messages embedded in the words. This does not apply to vocal compositions alone. As we have mentioned earlier, instrumental compositions are also often conceived as abstractions of texts. The primacy of words in yoruba music cannot therefore be overemphasised. In very many cases musical performances (both instrumental and vocal) actually tell stories in strong poetic language. The wordings of these performances, that is song texts are of different categories and they provide educative insights into different aspects of the yoruba culture. Song texts thus generally provided effective media through which music communicates to yoruba audiences. This tendency is not peculiar to the yoruba culture. As Akpabot (1983:39) had noted Song texts are culture indicators from which we can test the pulse of any given section of the Nigerian society; for a complex song reflects, a complex society since it is an adaptation of the trait of any given society.  As culture indicators, yoruba song texts provide one of the most effective means through which new and young members of the society are tutored on different aspects of the culture. Yoruba song texts are or different categories. These include songs of historical narratives, songs of praise, philosophical songs, funeral songs and songs of social control. In Yoruba society, it is not uncommon for members of an audience to rate some singers poorly not because of their musical (singing) ability but as a result of their Inability for compose powerful, expressive and convincing song texts. Yoruba singers are therefore acknowledged poets whose performances are rich in philosophical, historical and literary Ideas. As poets, historians and philosophers, they are usually regarded as fountains of knowledge from which people come to draw. The following examples illustrate the educational values of yoruba song texts. LA'AYE OLUGBON la'aye Olugbon Mo ro 'borun meje E o ma fiwe lorin La'aye Aresa, Mo ro 'borun mefa E o ma fiwe lorin La'aye Atanda Mora koko mo ra’ran Mora sanyan Baba aso. English translation: In the time of Olugbon I used seven Iborun
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